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Tips for the ESL Teacher: Helping Asian Students Understand A, An, and The

By Larry Gordon

Learning how to use the definite and indefinite articles in the English language can be a hair-tearing experience for Asian students. That's because their own languages found little use for this part of grammar, and they have managed to communicate quite well for thousands of years.

Definite & Indefinite Articles

Having background knowledge in the Asian student's first language can be of tremendous help to the ESL teacher. The Asian students in mind here are Japanese, but Korean and Chinese students also share insecurities in their second language learning experience, when it involves the definite and indefinite articles in English.

One reason for this insecurity is that the definite and indefinite articles are so integral to the English language that Asian students feel overwhelmed at times. In some Asian languages articles are not that relevant. For instance, in Japanese, the article may be placed at the beginning of a text, and it will not be seen again, according to Japanese students who have studied English under my instruction.

An Interactive Approach

In order to make the teaching of a, an, and the as interesting and interactive as possible, I used an approach based on the lack of applying a, an, and the.

“What?” you say. How did I manage to pull this off? Let me explain.

Initially, students were handed out a text in the English language with no articles—only blanks, where an article might or might not be necessary. Students had to decide whether a, an, or the was needed. These Asian students had to explain their usage or lack of usage of the articles.

After practicing this exercise, these same students were asked to write a one page composition without using the definite and indefinite articles in English. At random, student compositions were selected for classroom interaction. (With the exclusion of the definite and indefinite articles, many of these compositions were flawless.) Students in class viewed the composition on the overhead projector, and had to decide where and why the definite article or indefinite article needed to be placed, according to the rules.

This approach and the interactive exercises greatly reduced the doubts these Asian students had had for years when they wrote compositions in English. By using this technique, a part of English grammar that some Asian students consider a veritable nightmare (and rightly so), can be turned into a fun, interactive, veritable learning experience.